Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 2, 2008

Judith Butler, _Undoing Gender_

THIS IS the fifth Judith Butler book I've read, and at least once in the course of reading each, I asked myself why I was beating my poor head on the brick wall of Butler's prose.  It usually occurred when I realized in reaching the bottom of a page that I had no idea what she was talking about.  But I would re-read the page, flip back to earlier pages to review what the main direction was, and soldier on, and I was always glad I did.  

If a writer's terrain is the badly-named, the dis-articulated, the mis-understood, the not-yet-recognized, well then, her writing is going to be one continual departure from the way that terrain has been written about before, and she is going to be hard to understand.  So be it.  It's worth it -- the enlargements of my mental horizon that I took away from the chapters "Longing for Recognition" and "The End of Sexual Difference?" alone were worth it.

The biographical spirals in the last two chapters I especially prized.  Butler has always seemed Olympian to me -- that is, if I stopped to think about it, I understood that she had gone to a kindergarten, that she bought groceries, had a Visa bill, and such, but my normal mode is to think of her as having emerged full-grown from the brow of Foucault and to inhabit some remote sphere from which she occasionally descends to earth to offer some timely and wise intervention.

In "The Question of Social Transformation," though, we get all this interesting stuff on the genesis and reception of Gender Trouble, and in "Can the 'Other' of Philosophy Speak?" we get all this even more interesting stuff about quarrelling parents, reading her mother's old college text of Spinoza in the basement...and it turns out she's Jewish, too!  Who knew?  Well, probably a lot of people, but not me.  I've never laid eyes on Judith Butler, actually -- just read several of her books.  But this was like finding out Dylan had had a bar mitzvah.  Dylan?  Really? 

So what I want now is a memoir by Judith Butler. I recall back in the 90s there were quite a few major academics getting autobiographical, Jane Tompkins, Frank Lentricchia, Alice Kaplan, a trend that was allowed to die a merciful death, true, but this would be different -- this would be Judith Butler, for crying out loud!  I haven't been this tantalized since that little excursus on Allan Bloom in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet.  Let's have her memoir, too!

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